Is sharing caring? The truth about children's sharing culture

When you first start coming to a Sudbury school — a school where there are no teachers, classes, or curriculum — as an adult, either as a staff or a volunteer, there are naturally a lot of cultural hurdles you have to overcome. Like: how do I respect the activities the kids choose? How do I avoid imposing my notions of “a good education” on them? But when I started working at The Open School, there was one challenge I didn’t expect to encounter: what do I do when kids ask me to share my lunch with them?

There were a few kids who always wanted to sample the things I was eating (or eat my whole lunch if they could get away with it!). I was advised by existing staff not to share my lunch, just as zoo guests are advised not to feed the animals. They will always beg for more. But I thought it was fun to let kids have a bite and hear the resulting “Mmmm!” Plus, kids would commonly share parts of their lunches with each other. The Sudbury philosophy was supposed to be about natural, authentic human interaction, and what could be more natural and authentic than sharing with your friends?

Eventually, the novelty of lunch-sharing wore off for me, and I wanted to say “no” every time. It was my lunch after all. I brought it specifically so I could eat it. But I worried about what I would be communicating to the kids. If it was customary for (kid) friends to share with each other, and I didn’t share, would they see me as a bad friend?

But of course, adult friends don’t share their lunches at any workplace I’ve ever been in. So the question becomes: why do kids share if adults don’t? Where does the cultural divide come from? And an even more difficult question: if kids customarily share, but adults don’t, why do we always hear adults cajoling kids to share, while chanting “sharing is caring”?

I’m going to offer an explanation for why kids share their lunches but adults don’t.

Kids are not completely in control of what foods go into their lunches. Some kids have no control at all. For those kids, lunches are like gifts from the gods — they just appear, and you never know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. And even if you chose your lunch, you don’t have a perfect understanding of your own likes and dislikes yet, so you might get it wrong. Sometimes you’re craving what your friend has, and they’re craving what you have. And if you get something really good, like a cookie, but your friend doesn’t, that’s not really fair — so you give them half of it to even the odds.

Adults, on the other hand, typically choose their lunches consciously, based on what they like or what they’re craving. Your friend’s lunch never looks better than yours, because you chose to bring the one thing you were craving out of everything in the universe (a.k.a the supermarket). And if you get something “better” than your friend, it has nothing to do with luck. It’s based on your choices and their choices.

The same is true for non-food possessions. I have seen kids share their toys, their computers, and even their money with their friends. They share spontaneously and not because they were advised that “sharing is caring”. They didn’t learn to do this from adult role-modeling. Adults at The Open School rarely share our own possessions, food, or money. Presumably this is because we have enough disposable income to afford all our necessities, while kids’ disposable income is either meager or nonexistent. If a child has the good fortune to possess a new doll, a laptop, or a crisp five dollar bill, it’s probably not because of any choice they made, but sheer luck. And good friends spread around the luck to make life more fair.

Though they don’t understand it, adults have identified children’s sharing culture and have learned to teach kids “sharing is caring” in order to teach them to be decent human beings. Interestingly, adults themselves don’t follow their own advice, and by the time the kids grow up, the advice will no longer apply to them. So is it really necessary to teach kids to share? And is sharing really “nice” or is it just a natural human adaptation to scarcity?

Scarcity has a dark side as well. What happens when a kid wants a cookie, but their cookie-possessing friend doesn’t want to share? They may be driven to begging, threatening, or even stealing. This happens most often when parents pack their kids’ lunches with only healthy foods. In that case, the kid has little or no control over what they eat, and the only way they can reclaim some control is by resorting such morally questionable tactics as extortion or stealing.

“If you don’t share, you’re a bad friend, and I won’t be your best friend anymore.”

One pair of little girls at The Open School have been working for the past few months at perfecting their manipulative tactics. Often they play the “sharing is caring” card on each other — “If you don’t share, you’re a bad friend, and I won’t be your best friend anymore.” This means, roughly, “You have a moral obligation to give me whatever possession you have that I want.” And it often works. But over time, this erodes their relationship and results in an awful lot of fights.

These kids didn’t learn “sharing is caring” from staff at The Open School. They learned it from parents, the media, and each other. The culture at The Open School embodies something different: individual rights, including the right to own property and decide what happens to it. That’s the rule adults abide by in the world outside. I don’t have to share my phone with anyone if I don’t want to. Nor do I have to share my lunch, or my money. Generosity might be nice, but only if it occurs voluntarily — otherwise it’s extortion.

If my friend is too poor to afford a phone, I will probably let them borrow mine from time to time to make calls (I’m not certain, since every adult I know has a phone). The same goes for food, and for all my possessions. The sharing culture we see in kid communities arises from the condition of scarcity which is normal for children. The non-sharing culture we see in adult communities arises from the condition of abundance (of food as well as other necessities, including smart devices) which is normal for the vast majority of adults in the United States.

Perhaps rather than admonishing our kids to share, we should ask ourselves why we allow them to grow up in a condition of scarcity, while we adults live in a condition of abundance.

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